Friday, 26 February 2021

Sponges are fascinating!

Sponges are very common, yet few of us pay them much attention when we are looking at organisms on the shore. It may be because they are primitive animals that don’t move, yet they are fascinating and, whether large or small (and they come in many shapes and sizes), they reward close examination. Some examples can be seen in the above image taken by Dan Bolt (from the BBC website) and those interested in examples of sponges from around the coast of Great Britain are recommended to view the excellent images taken by Dr Keith Hiscock and available on the MarLIN website [1].

Philip Henry Gosse writes about sponges in Land and Sea [2], in a chapter headed “An Hour among the Torbay Sponges”, and this has a special appeal for me as I am very familiar with the coast of that bay. Indeed, his collecting of sponges centred on the rocky outcrops at Goodrigton (above), a favourite haunt of mine as a boy [3]:

Diverse as they are in form, and in texture, and in colour, and in manner of growth, they have all the same essential structure. We cannot learn much about them by looking at them here, especially after they have been for an hour or more forsaken by the receding tide; but if we take one or two specimens off very carefully, so as not in any wise to bruise or break their delicate organization, separating, in short, by means of the chisel, a bit of the rock itself on which they are growing, and, committing them to a jar of sea-water, examine them at home, we shall find much to admire..

This is typical of Henry Gosse’s approach to observation and he was a populariser both of the use of aquaria and of microscopes to study living organisms. Nowadays, however, we might frown at Henry’s use of a hammer a chisel to acquire specimens in situ. In Land and Sea [2], Gosse continues that:

..each has then been rinsed and deposited in a small glass cell with parallel sides, full of fresh and clean sea-water, and left for twelve hours at least. Then, taking care not to touch the glass cell, nor to jar even the table on which it is placed, either of which might cause the sensitive sponge instantly to cease its operations, we bring a powerful pocket-lens close to the glass, and intently watch the specimen within. Suppose it is one of the yellow species, which throws up little hillocks, the Crumb-of-bread Sponge; our attention is at once excited by seeing a strong movement in the water, through which tiny atoms are hurried along in swift currents. We fix our gaze on one of the hillocks:-lo! it is a volcano indeed! From the perforate summit of the cone, as from an active crater, is vomited forth a strong and continuous stream of water, and crowds of atoms come pouring forth, disgorged in succession from the interior, and projected far away into the free water, to be followed by unintermitting crowds of others. This is highly curious, and we wonder what is the nature of the power which so strongly conveys to us the idea of an active vitality in a mass so inert and apparently lifeless as this yellow encrusting sponge.

Using his typically vivid powers of description, Henry asks a good question and the power with which sponges generate currents can be seen in a series of videos on the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life web site [4]. He goes on to provide us with the explanation:

The thoughtful observer, watching the evolution of this unintermitted current, ever pouring out with such power and velocity and volume, would ask, What is the nature of the force that vomits forth the fluid? what its seat? and whence the supply? No visible current passes inward from without; still, as the stream is continuous, and yet the quantity of water in the cell does not increase, it is manifest that the water from without must enter in the very same ratio as it is expelled. In order to understand this, we must cut or tear a Sponge to pieces. We shall find that the round apertures are the mouths of a few large canals which run through the interior; that into these open, at irregular intervals, other subordinate canals; that these receive others smaller still; these, again, others, in an ever-diminishing ratio; till at last we can no longer trace them as canals, the whole superficial portion of the Sponge being pierced with microscopically minute and innumerable pores. Into these the external water is constantly being absorbed, carrying with it both oxygen for respiration, and organic matter for nutrition. The influent water, parting with these elements, and thus revivifying the living gelatinous flesh that clothes every fibre, gradually permeates the whole interior, flowing along the pipes in succession, till at length it gathers into the larger canals and is poured out at their apertures..

The chapter in Land and Sea [2] continues with a description of the structure of sponges and the means by which the powerful currents highlighted in the section above are produced:

A Sponge is composed of a clear granular jelly, investing a fibrous or spicular skeleton, formed of horny matter, or flint, or lime. The Sponge which we use for washing has a skeleton made up of fibres of horn, but those which I have been describing have their solid parts made up of flint, the particles of which are arranged in needles (spicula) of a perfectly transparent, solid, brittle glass..

..These spicula or needles, however, that make up the firm portion of the Sponge, are worthy of a little notice. Without them the creature would be a mere drop of glaire, having neither form nor consistence. And yet a heap of needles seems to have little power of assuming or of keeping any definite corporate form, when we remember that they have no adhesion to each other, and nothing, in fact, to keep them together but their mutual interlacement, and the thin glaire by which they are invested..

..The gelatinous flesh has the power of secreting the flint from the sea-water, and of depositing it in regular needle-like forms, and in such an arrangement as to produce the canals and apertures that I have described above. The flesh itself is furnished, on the surface that lines the canals, with curious filaments or hairs called cilia, which are endowed with the faculty of waving to and fro in given directions at the will of the animal (for, strange as it may sound to some of my readers, a Sponge is, beyond all controversy, an animal), and in rhythm or harmony with one another; and these regular wavings impart movement to the water, and cause currents to flow in a given direction though the canals.

These paragraphs show Henry Gosse’s powers of observation, his acquired knowledge, and his wonderful descriptive prose. To some readers, especially those attuned to some of the excellent presentations on the Web [4], it must seem a bit hard-going, for we do not depend on reading in the same way that natural historians did in previous centuries – Gosse marking a transition in that his books use numerous illustrations, many of which he produced himself. Of course, he could not employ moving images.

That sponges are successful is demonstrated by their almost unchanged appearance from more that 500 million years ago and it can be argued that this success resulted from the earlier evolution of cilia and the evolution of the ability to secrete spicules using a number of materials. Of course, Henry Gosse, as a profound Creationist, would have been aghast at the mention of evolution in this context and, although Henry and myself have a shared sense of wonder in looking at the natural world, one of us has a theistic explanation for what we see and the other not.

Sponges are amazing, yet we pay them little attention. Gosse encouraged us to do that and those of us who enjoy shores, and the life they contain, are indebted to him for his encouragement. Using Gosse’s term, it’s good to be a “thoughtful observer” and I wonder if our sense of enquiry about Nature is as high now as it was 150 years ago? Are we losing the child-like gift of curiosity?


[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nesbit & Co. N.B. This book was a collection of earlier essays and “An Hour among the Torbay Sponges” was probably first published in 1859 according to Freeman and Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. It was a time when Henry Gosse was at his most outward going and expansive.

[3] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse. e-book.




Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Looking for Torbay Bonnets


I was very lucky to have been born, and brought up, in Torbay on the Devon Riviera coast, only leaving to go to University when I was 18 [1]. Although I now live in Hertfordshire, I enjoy my return visits to South Devon for a couple of days each year, and I’m hoping that 2021 will allow me to re-connect with my roots; COVID-19 having prevented travel in 2020.

Perhaps because I live inland, I have a strong love of coasts and I am drawn, especially, to the red sandy beaches of Torbay and the rocky outcrops of sandstone and limestone that are such features of the Bay and the adjacent coast. Every visit I make includes a walk along a beach and, unlike most people, my fascination is with the strand line of material left by the retreating tide. I started beachcombing nearly seventy years ago, when there was far less plastic and other refuse on the shore, most of that being discarded by ships, or coming through sewage outlets from around the world. My discoveries then were mostly of seaweeds (from which colonising sandhoppers scurried away when the weed was turned over) and the remains of marine animals, with shells and shell fragments being abundant. Sometimes, there was something unusual – a mermaid’s purse or a comb jelly – but mostly the remains were of molluscs, their soft body parts having been decomposed long before. The commonest shells were those of cockles, clams and razor clams and, usually, there were also good numbers of limpets, slipper limpets, winkles (of several species) and top shells. They intrigued me as a child, as I had such little knowledge of the aquatic world, except that acquired by exploring rock pools.

After a storm, the amount of detritus gathered at the strand line could be impressive and the number of shells, and shell fragments, washed up after the “big freeze” of early 1963 made one wonder just what had been left behind in, and on, the substratum of the shallow bay. Although I wasn’t aware of them at the time, among the shells would have been those of “Paignton Cockles” and “Torbay Bonnets”. I have described Paignton Cockles in an earlier blog post [2], but many readers will not have heard about Torbay Bonnets (also known as Fools-cap Limpets). These are extracts from a description written by Gosse in the mid-Nineteenth Century [3]:

The Fools-cap Limpets.. ..have the shell shaped like a somewhat high cone, with the summit a little produced, and turned over backwards. The surface is commonly marked with lines (striæ), and covered with a horny skin, which is sometimes invested with a short velvety down. The interior has no plate or partition of any kind..

..The only British species is commonly known by the appellation Torbay Bonnet; it also bears the names of Fools-cap Limpet, Cap of Liberty, and Hungarian Bonnet, all of which designations.. .. have an obvious reference to its form. It is a rather large shell, being frequently more than an inch and a half in diameter, and an inch in height. Its substance is rather thin, though strong, and somewhat translucent; its colour is a delicate pink, or flesh-white, though this is concealed, especially around the lower part, by an olive-coloured skin, covered with shaggy down. The interior of the shell is delicately smooth, and of the same roseate hue as the exterior.

The animal is usually pale yellow, with a pink mantle bordered with a fine orange-coloured fringe. The head, which is large and swollen, is tinged with brown.

Though generally distributed, The Fools-cap must be considered a rare shell. Torbay, as one of its familiar names indicates, is the locality in which it occurs in greatest abundance.

Gosse provides an illustration of the shell (above upper) that can be compared to a photographic image taken by Georges Jansoone (above lower). In the latter, note that the periostracum is missing, this being the coating of the shell that Gosse refers to. In both images, there is no animal present, just the shells that they secrete, the animals having a superficial resemblance to limpets and slipper limpets, the former being familiar to us.

Although Gosse refers to Torbay Bonnets as Fools-cap Limpets, they are very different to common limpets, although they share features with slipper limpets. Common limpets use a file-like tongue (the radula) to scrape over the surface of rocks to remove algae and biofilm and are mobile when covered by water, returning to their “home scar” should they live on rocks in the inter-tidal. Slipper limpets and Torbay Bonnets, in contrast, are sedentary and feed on tiny particles carried into the cavity of the shell by huge numbers of tiny beating hairs called cilia. The particles are then trapped on mucus and carried to the mouth for ingestion, the radula being important in this process [4].  

I began this post about Torbay Bonnets by describing my love of beachcombing in Torbay before I went off to University. There, I was taught about molluscs by Professor Alastair Graham and Dr Vera Fretter (the latter was my tutor) and they were acknowledged experts on British snails, like limpets, slipper limpets, and Torbay Bonnets. I wish that they were still alive, as I would love to chat to them to find out more about these fascinating molluscs (I didn't have so many questions when I was a student...). Their monograph on snails (see image below) remains a classic of scholarship and research and, just like Gosse, they made all the illustrations themselves. Few of us have these skills, and maybe they are not needed in the age of videography and the internet, but we can still enjoy beachcombing and the excitement of discovery along the strand line. I’m certainly looking forward to visiting South Devon in 2021 and I shall be looking out for Torbay Bonnets.

[1] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse. e-book.


[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1854) Natural history. Mollusca. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] C.M.Yonge (1938) Evolution of ciliary feeding in the Prosobranchia, with an account of feeding in Capulus ungaricus. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 22: 453-468.

[5] Vera Fretter and Alastair Graham (1962) British Prosobranch Molluscs: their functional anatomy and ecology. London, The Ray Society.



Thursday, 14 January 2021

Natural history and COVID-19


Every evening, I watch the BBC News to get the latest data on COVID-19, supplemented by images of patients in intensive care, and knowing that their numbers are increasing. It’s grim for all of us and, as I have a temperament like A. A. Milne’s Eeyore, I feel a strong need to escape from the current situation. I do this by reading and by walking. 

Taking a break from a succession of novels by Anthony Trollope, I have thoroughly enjoyed “The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus” by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren [1]. The three authors all write beautifully about their observations of Nature, set against the backdrop of the first wave of the pandemic. This coincided with the glorious weather of Spring 2020 and the book ends with the easing of lockdown and the transition into summer. 

Michael lives near Kew, Jeremy in Suffolk and Peter in Wiltshire and they all kept diaries of the local walks they made; entries being edited during joint sessions held to fit the publishing schedule. As Jeremy writes in a splendid blog post on the “Winged Geographies” website [2]: 

There was another, self-imposed intensity to the writing, since we agreed with a publisher at the outset that we would deliver a complete typescript in June if they would publish it in October, a demanding schedule that had us every day walking out from our front doors to see what we encountered, notebooks in hand, writing up our discoveries later, and then sharing our copy every evening for some rapid and ruthless joint editing. In the event, working so fast was surprisingly liberating – our experiences not so much ‘recollected in tranquillity’ but penned with an al fresco spontaneity. 

Jeremy’s post also provides an excellent taster for the book. I love the enthusiasm expressed in “The Consolation of Nature” (even forgiving the occasional lapses into anthropomorphism) and I wish I had the skill of the three authors in being able to identify all that they saw, especially the birds. As they remark, many birds are identified by their song and, unfortunately, this is something that I never learned and never will learn, as I am now rather deaf to high frequency sounds. I can recognise the commoner birds by sight, and was able to identify most of the butterflies and some of the wild flowers that I saw in the warm spring, but it was the smells of the walks that most affected me. The scent of honeysuckle always bowls me over and Michael describes the familiar aroma of elderflowers and Peter the characteristic smell of privet, the latter always taking me back to the warm days of my childhood and walking through the local park to go trainspotting. That association works every time for me. 

Some sections of “The Consolation of Nature” had a special appeal for me and these are given below in the form of a dialogue. They are just a small selection of my responses to the many delightful observations in the book. The initials of the author of each quote are given, together with my comment: 

JM – [In discussing the names of moths] …you can have a pretty good evening just reading the index of a moth fieldguide!… …it will be a spiritual tragedy if we risk losing, along with the moths, this treasury of the most extraordinary and beautiful names given to any animal group. 

RW – Agreed, but among many other groups, I think the extraordinary and beautiful names of sea anemones run those of moths very close [3]. 

PM – [Who has chalk streams in his walking “patch”] In chalk streams, most of the small life of the river clings to the underside of stones, or finds other refuges in the waterweed – our champion ranunculus, which puts forth its gorgeous yellow-centred white blossom in May (its botanical name is the stream water-crowfoot). 

RW – I also live within walking distance of chalk streams (that are very rare worldwide). In addition, I have been involved in a research project that investigated “ecological engineering” by Ranunculus. Individual stands of water crowfoot alter the pattern of flow in streams and this serves to keep the finely-divided leaves at the margins clean, while sediment builds up under the plant to provide nutrients. The leaves of each stand are also colonised by huge numbers of tiny invertebrates that transform organic matter, so each plant is a mini-ecosystem of its own. 

PM – [On a visit to a spring feeding a chalk stream]. I fish about in the gravel bed to see what is living in these gin-clear cold springs. Looking down on it, you would think the water to be near lifeless, but remove some of the stones into an enamel dish and life appears, scuttling, wriggling, crawling, or, in the case of the tiny black limpets anchored to the flints, just sitting there. There are caddis cases attached to the stones, a few young stonefly nymphs with their double-pronged tails, and numerous shrimps, named Gammarus pulex from their resemblance to Pulex, the flea. There are also skeletons of last year’s leaves, as black as Florentine lace. 

RW – As we are terrestrial animals, we are not familiar with aquatic life, whether marine of freshwater. As Peter points out, taking some stones from a stream and placing them in a dish of water shows us what is living there. The limpets move slowly over the surface using a rasping tongue to feed on algae and bacterial biofilm adhering to the rock. Stonefly nymphs are either predators or feeders on detritus, and the freshwater shrimps, often very abundant indeed. feed mainly on decaying vegetation – contributing to the lacy appearance of the leaves provided by the strengthened veins that are less favoured in the diet of the shrimps. Gammarus is found throughout the year, so what sustains the high population densities, other than the supply of vegetation in autumn? I think I know the answer, but interested readers should seek out research papers on the topic to find out more (with apologies for the sense of mystery). 

PM – [Describing his observation of “pond slime” using a binocular microscope]. I have to say that, even as pond slime goes, this isn’t prime material. This is very low-grade gunk. The delight I used to take in microscopy as a boy was in large part due to its revelation of beauty in surprising places. There are wonders in the leg of a flea, the tongue of a fly, even the guts of a worm. The disgusting sludge on your slide dissolves into a microcosm, the world of single cells, shaped like stars. bananas, violins, boats (one of the commonest algae is Navicula, the ‘little ship’). 

RW – I spent much of my research career looking at material using a binocular microscope. Not only did that provide insights into a world hidden to the naked eye, but it also enabled measurements to be made and, after various stains were used, the ability to see the location of materials on/in the bodies of organisms and in the slime to which Peter refers. Then, a compound microscope allowed observation of organisms and detritus at a yet finer scale, including bacteria and other microorganisms. When I retired, I decided to leave that world behind and I have rarely used a microscope since. What I can never forget is all that accumulated knowledge and I carry it with me on walks. It gives me a sense of understanding of what might be going on at a very fine level and adds a great deal to my enjoyment of Nature – alongside the birds, insects, wild flowers, trees and all the rest. As readers of “Walking with Gosse” will know, I was introduced to microscopy as a boy and was delighted to spend half hours in the tiny world, to quote the title of a book published at the end of the 19th Century. That century saw the development of the passion for natural history, and books by some talented authors, of whom Michael, Peter and Jeremy are the literary descendants. 

JM – [When considering the world of fungi] People sometimes recoil from fungi, because of their associations with decomposition and their other-worldly appearances, but they play a crucial role in the world’s nutrient cycles and ecology. 

RW – Much of the folklore associated with fungi comes from our observations of fruiting bodies and most of us know little about the mass of filaments that form the mycelium. Yet it is these filaments that are involved in decomposition and there are very many fungi that do not have obvious fruiting bodies. Together with the bacteria, they are the great decomposers and, as Jeremy says, they have a vital role to play in the turnover of organic matter. It is the colonisation of dead leaves by decomposers that makes them attractive as food for animals like Gammarus and many terrestrial invertebrates and they, in turn produce masses of faecal pellets. If decomposition incites recoil in people, a consideration of faeces does so even more. Yet our compost heaps contain extraordinary numbers of pellets and it is these, together with their colonising microorganisms, that provide many nutrients for growing plants. 

MM – Beauty right in front of me, beauty in the distance – it is a fitting end to the coronavirus spring, the loveliest spring that ever was. I have never looked so closely at nature before, and I think I have learned something worthwhile: the more you observe it, the more there is to observe, and you realise that the richness of it is infinite. 

RW – I agree so much with this statement in the coda of “The Consolation of Nature”. We are discovering more and more, yet that makes us realise that we know only a smaller and smaller fraction of what is out there – the infinite to which Michael refers. Towards the end of my research career, I realised that I could never get answers to the myriad of questions that I had about how ecosystems actually “worked”. It was humbling and I turned to other types of research, but I will always be a natural historian and my knowledge accompanies me on my solitary walks. There is so much to see, hear and smell throughout the year. 

Reading “The Consolation of Nature” in this second, major wave of COVID-19 makes it easy to conjure up how we felt in the first half of 2020. We have yet to have the warm and sunny days described and, indeed, the bleakness of the data on the pandemic are matched by the current bleakness of the landscape. Yet there is still much to see and I walk as regularly now as I did then. Solitary walks in nature have always appealed to me and I know of their beneficial effects [4]. However, there are occasional disappointments. The image below was taken in one of the country lanes that is part of a favourite walk of mine and, on seeing the fly-tipped refuse, I initially felt anger that then softened as I walked on. Maybe it was a case of “out of sight out of mind”, but I certainly remembered the unsightly mess and I wonder whether the people who dumped it have any appreciation of Nature at all? Our local Council is good at cleaning up this kind of mess (unfortunately, it occurs fairly often) but, even if they didn’t, plants, animals and microorganisms would get to work on it and either decompose the contents or hide their presence.

As I wait, with millions of others, for vaccination and the first signs of the Spring so well described by McCarthy, Mynott and Marren, there’s still an exhilaration in solitary walks and also in the simple pleasure of watching birds in the garden. A consolation indeed and I’m lucky to be aware of so many aspects of Nature and yet so few. It keeps “Eeyoreness” at bay.


[1] Michael McCarthy. Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren (2020) The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the time of Coronavirus. London, Hodder & Stoughton.





Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Leslie Jackman’s Marine Aquaria


Leslie Jackman was a man of many parts: teacher, broadcaster, museum officer, film-maker, and author [1]. He was a noted natural historian and an important influence on a generation of young people, of which I was one, and I had the added bonus of meeting him, as we both lived in Paignton in Torbay [2]. Although he wrote about terrestrial natural history and the life found in streams, rivers and lakes, Leslie seemed especially fascinated by the coast and by marine biology. He encouraged others to share his enthusiasm by “rock-pooling” and by looking at plants and animals in aquaria.

This is clear in the Preface of Marine Aquaria [3]:

The address given in the Preface is “The Seashore Aquarium, Paignton” and this was run by Leslie and, if my memory serves me correctly, was located adjacent to Paignton Harbour in the building shown in the image at the top of this blog post. This was a fitting site, as many specimens were brought to the aquarium by local fisherman [3].  

It is clear that Leslie pays homage to Gosse and later in the book we read:

The first great seashore observer was Gosse. He lived a hundred years ago, but his writings are classics of observational work. Gosse never lost the freshness of excitement that came from new discovery and his appetite for knowledge was insatiable. If you desire, as did Gosse’s friend Charles Kingsley in Glaucus, to walk on and in under the waves” you will have found a new and absorbing interest in your aquarium.

Gosse’s The Aquarium [4] and the handbook based on the final chapter of the earlier book and sold at a price that made it more available to a wide audience [5] contain all the information needed for aspiring aquarists.

Marine Aquaria, written more than 60 years ago, had much in common with the earlier works by Gosse and they cover the same ground. Of course, there are differences in that Leslie discusses the use of plastics and air pumps, neither being available in Gosse’s day. Intriguingly, we read in Marine Aquaria that good conditions for animals can be provided by an aeration system based on reservoirs (see below, upper) and this is almost identical to a system that Gosse rigged up in his home in Torquay [2]. Gosse’s observation tank was, however, less elaborate than that shown in The Aquarium, this being a top-of-the-range parlour model with all the plumbing hidden in the pedestal (see below, lower).

So, what was the audience for the books by Henry Gosse and Leslie Jackman? Judging by the Preface of Marine Aquaria, the audience was male, but this was, of course, just a form of expression of the times and Leslie promoted an interest in natural history in boys, girls, men and women. Interestingly, women played an important part in the development of collecting on the shore - Anna Atkins with her cyanotypes of algae [6], Anne Pratt with her seashore guide [7], and Margaret Gatty with her work on seaweeds [8]. Torbay, and the adjacent coastline, was something of a mecca for the popular appreciation of life on the shore for both men and women, the latter having to pay special attention to the clothes that they wore [9]. In addition to Gosse, Amelia Griffiths was resident in the town, making important contributions to the study of algae [8], and, as Leslie Jackman mentions, Charles Kingsley also visited Torbay in the 1850s and in Glaucus heaps praise on Henry Gosse. The two became close friends [2].

What has happened to our interest in life on the shore and in marine biology since the publication of Leslie Jackman’s book? There was clearly little difference between its content, and advice, to that which had been published a hundred years before. Many of us still enjoy looking in rock pools and there are many aquarists, although few collect animals from the shore for their aquaria. We can SCUBA dive, or snorkel, if we want to see marine organisms in their natural environment, and we can visit huge aquaria that are now part of the entertainment industry, with tanks so large that they approximate to natural habitat (although the animals and plants that they contain are selected by the aquarium managers). Both have an educational value, but there is no longer an appetite for making one’s own aquarium to allow close observation. We now have numerous videoclips for that and there are also wonderfully-shot TV programmes that we can enjoy in the comfort of our living rooms, but how real is it to us? 

Something is missing from the thrill that Henry Gosse and Leslie Jackman encouraged – something that is life-enhancing, as any first-hand study of the natural world will be. I collected plants and animals and had aquarium tanks at school [2] and even kept some animals in bowls at home. I am very grateful that I knew Leslie Jackman – and I feel that I know Henry Gosse – and I am also grateful to have been brought up in Torbay and collected on the shores that inspired them. They inspired me, too.

[1] 21st January 2013

[2] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse. e-book, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.. 

[3] L. A. J. Jackman (1957) Marine Aquaria. London, Cassell and Company

[4] P. H. Gosse (1854) The aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea. London, John Van Voorst. 

[5] P. H. Gosse (1855) A handbook to the marine aquarium: containing practical instructions for constructing, stocking, and maintaining a tank, and for collecting plants and animals. London, John Van Voorst.

[6] 20th April 2016

[7] 16th October 2017 

[8] 30th December 2013 

[9] 6th January 2014



Thursday, 3 December 2020

The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss - and thoughts of Renforsen

Johan Christian Dahl’s The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827) provides a striking image of the power of water. It is a painting of the sublime and there is much to see within the work [for a large-scale image click on the link in 1]. The waterfall (foss in Norwegian) charges towards us from between large rocks before the river bends away to our right and the mist that we see in the middle distance provides evidence of even greater turbulence upstream. We just make out a mountain in the far distance, so we know the landscape setting, but Dahl’s low-level view focusses our attention on the middle distance and foreground. 

We note that many tree trunks are scattered around, having become snagged after they were heaved into the river to be carried to sawmills downstream, a practice that was common in Scandinavia before trucking. To the left, we see logging activity and two men are seen on rocks just to the left of the river and these loggers, together with the occupied wooden cottage, give scale to the picture. There are more cottages in the distance, one precariously close to the chasm through which the river flows, while the other has a meadow on which cattle are seen. The combination of dramatic landscape and rural activities is typical of Dahl, who followed the tradition established by the 17th century painters Jacob van Ruisdael and Allaert van Everdingen [2]. 

Johan Christian Dahl was brought up in Bergen, and the surrounding mountainous landscape, with its cascading rivers, formed an impression that stayed with him for the rest of his life. After being apprenticed to a painter in Bergen, he continued his studies in Copenhagen, where he saw Nordic landscapes by Dutch masters [3]. He began to be recognised for the paintings he exhibited there, and his success allowed him to become a professional artist. 

Dahl had an elevated view of landscape painting, his chosen genre, and, as Marie Bang states [2]: 

 …he claims that “landscape painting can have the same effect on the heart as history painting, when the painter presents the objects in an interesting way.” Here we see Dahl under the influence of academic coercion and the hierarchy of genres, where history painting with its moral message stood at the top of the ladder and landscape painting at the bottom; topographical prospectus painting being hardly regarded as art at all, but as a purely mechanical copying of nature without the artist’s creative influence. 

Dahl’s Romantic, emotional view of landscape permeates all his work and he was fortunate in having Prince Christian Frederik (later to become King Christian VIII of Denmark) as a patron and supporter. On travelling to Dresden in September 1818, Dahl gained further support from Caspar David Friedrich who was [2]: 

..fourteen years older and an established artist, but the two found in each other a common love of nature and a sincere depiction of nature based on self-study more than on the well-established academic clichés that they both deeply hated. 

The enclosed, melancholy Friedrich expressed his transcendental longing in distinctive mood landscapes, while the outgoing, lively Dahl tended towards more down-to-earth and dramatic motifs. Despite their close friendship and their deep love for nature, the two had no profound influence on each other; they were too different in temperament and artistic goals. 

As was mentioned earlier, Dahl retained a passion for Norway and its dramatic topography describing himself as [2]:

..a “more Nordic painter” with a “preference for sea shores, mountain nature, waterfalls, sailing ships and harbour pictures in daylight and moon light” 

He made a long-awaited trip back to his homeland in 1826, visiting the Labro falls, among other places - the inspiration for the 1827 painting. Sketches were made and these formed the basis of works to be completed in his studio [3]. In the Introduction to Forests, Rocks, Torrents, Christopher Riopelle [3] writes: 

A painting like The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss of 1827, executed for an English client, results directly from Dahl’s long study of the Norwegian landscape at its most tumultuous. At the same time, it is the product of slow and painstaking studio work.. 

..For Dahl, the aesthetic merit of the painting lay not in the motif but in the artist’s ability to ennoble it. It was this higher, more complete vision – the eternal Norway of the mind’s eye, fruit of long reflection – at which Dahl always aimed.. did not matter where Dahl was when he chose to paint Norway. The snowy peaks, the cascading torrents, the impenetrable forest of the true north did not need to be in his line of sight; rather, memories of Norway, contemplated in the tranquillity of the studio, could be prompted by oil sketches made on the spot.. 

I, too, love Nordic landscapes but by adoption, having been fortunate to make many visits to Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. In the summer of 1975, I joined researchers from the University of Lund on a project on a tributary of the Vindel River in Swedish Lapland and I returned in 1976, not only to continue the project, but because I was captivated by the landscape and the beauty of the river. After a spell working on the biology of a lake outlet in Finland, I returned to the Vindel river and a project with my late, and much missed, colleague Björn Malmqvist from the University of Umeå. Renforsen on the Vindel was especially important to me, and, during ice-melt in the mountains, the rapids are indeed sublime. You will gain an impression of the majesty of Renforsen from the video clips cited below [4,5], where you will note the barriers to prevent the build-up of logs at the margins, for the river was used, like the river in Dahl’s painting, for the transport of tree trunks to mills downstream. 

The Vindel River is unregulated, but many other rivers have been dammed to provide a head of water to drive hydro-electric schemes. This fate also befell the Labro falls, as can be seen in an aerial view from Google Earth (see below, together with an image taken by Per Vestøl of the power station located close to the point shown in the painting). The natural falls are still in existence (see the Google Earth image), but their flow is controlled – quite different to the Labrofoss of the early Nineteenth Century. 

I wonder what Dahl would have thought of the change? As a passionate supporter of Norwegian identity, maybe he would be proud to see that natural resources were being harnessed. But the sense of the sublime has been diminished. Instead of the power of Nature over humans, so evident in Dahl’s painting, we now have the opposite. Most of the magic has gone. 


[2] Marie Lødrup Bang (2020) Johan Christian Dahl. Store Norske Leksikon [in Norwegian] 

[3] Christopher Riopelle (2011) Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscape Paintings from the Lunde Collection. London, National Gallery Company.



Thursday, 26 November 2020

The walk to Elbury Cove


When I started blogging, I never imagined that I would achieve the milestone of 250 posts. What started as publicity for “Walking with Gosse” (the blog taking its title from the sub-title of the book [1]) has grown to encompass wider fields related to many aspects of Nature, Creation and Religious Conflicts. To celebrate the 250, I would like to describe a walk, part of the South West Coast Path, that has always meant a great deal to me and with which I associate many memories, both distant and recent. I was raised in Torbay and the coastal landscape of the bay inspired me in important ways. It was where I could escape from things that troubled me and it instilled in me a Romantic approach to life that replaced the religion of my upbringing.

The walk began at Paignton Harbour (above), where I loved to spend time watching the tide and the boats. and, from there, I followed the coast to the beaches at Goodrington, the location of the well-known Gosse family outing in 1887 [1]. The path then led uphill, past Saltern Cove (where I sometimes sat to ineffectually revise chemistry, among other subjects), and onwards to the next sandy beach at Broadsands (all shown in the sequence of images below).


My destination was Elbury Cove, but not as far as the shingle beach that seemed so different to the golden sands more typical of the bay. It was the limestone outcrops that I liked and I walked out to be close to the sea, listening to it lapping against the shore and looking down in the hope of seeing fish. In summer, I would stretch out on the smooth rocks and, in other seasons, become fascinated by the way waves crashed in. From the outcrops, I could look across to the cove and see Lord Churston’s bathhouse that allowed his lordship the chance to go sea bathing [2]. Set against the dark woods, and adjacent to the steep shingle beach, the bathhouse ruin would have appealed to landscape painters, especially those in the Romantic tradition and the view certainly appealed to me. All this is seen in the following images:


I must have made that walk scores of times when I was living in Paignton, and at school in Torquay, and it is always something I love to do on my rare visits back to Torbay. Nowadays, I stick to the path, but when I was younger, I also walked on the beaches and, at low tide, walked round headlands by jumping from boulder to boulder. I had no real sense of danger and it wasn’t just the physical exercise, excitement, and feeling of isolation that I enjoyed, as there was also much natural history to observe, both in rock pools and on the rocks themselves (see below). I became fascinated by creatures like limpets, mussels and barnacles that attached themselves, often in huge masses, and I wondered how they had arrived, and how they survived. I knew that barnacles and mussels lived by capturing particles from the sea, but had no idea at the time that my walks to Elbury Cove would provide inspiration for my career in biological research.


My interest was always in aquatic biology and my research work was mostly on suspension-feeding animals. Although I didn’t work directly on barnacles and mussels, I developed an appreciation of the types of particles that they captured and these were not just planktonic plants, but also dead organic matter. Some organic particles were from the breakdown of plants and animals, others were formed by aggregation processes at the micro-scale, often involving exudates from cells. I learned about the importance of waves and bubbles in particle formation and that, of course, took me right back to my walks. When I look out at the waves at Elbury Cove now, I not only see a Romantic vista, but also the source of my understanding of how aquatic systems work, something I was able to describe for others (see below). I guess that’s the result of being a Romantic, too. It's been quite an adventure



[1] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other e-book sellers.





Monday, 9 November 2020

My secondary school education in Torbay

In “Walking with Gosse” [1], I describe how I became a professional biologist and natural historian, a path that was defined when I was young. It was my good fortune to be brought up in Torbay, and the coast (see above), and surrounding countryside, were my main sources of inspiration. That, and the freedom to learn provided by Oldway Primary School.

In an earlier post on nicknames for schoolmasters [2], I mentioned my time at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School and how serious my education then became. Syllabuses required certain things to be taught and, of course, I went along with it, never questioning the value of what I learned, and I did manage to pass most examinations (except in Biology [1]), if that was the point of syllabuses. Of course, I recognise that one has to have building blocks for understanding various subjects, but that need not make subjects dull.

Here are some descriptions of my secondary education, given by subject:


In the first year, English centred on grammar and we were all issued with Ridout’s “English Today” (see above) – not new, but hand-me-downs from previous year groups. Mr Locker, a really pleasant master, took us through exercises and we learned about the structure of language as well as writing essays, learning about precis, and other skills. As we progressed through the school, there were more advanced editions of “English Today” and I can’t remember any of the masters who taught me, until Mr Kay in my fourth year (I had jumped a year earlier in my school career). He made a great impression on me, as he showed an interest in us; recommending novels that we might read and explaining a bit about them. I don’t know whether it was part of any syllabus, but Mr Kay also introduced us to the derivation of place names and that sent me scurrying to the Public Library to find out more. I was fascinated, probably because here was something in my formal education that I could relate to the world outside school, something that novels did too. It wasn’t just the derivation of place names either – we talked about many words and I remember well the following:

Mr Kay (to the class): “The name pancreas has its origin in Ancient Greek, while the insulin it produces is a word derived from Latin.”

“I bet that no-one knows where insulin is actually produced.”

RSW (raising his hand – the only response to the question in the class): “The Islets of Langerhans, Sir.”

 I should have taken him up on the bet.



I only took one year of Latin – with Mr Allen, who had a habit of referring to each student as his “favourite pupil” (and there were many other eccentricities of behaviour, like shooting at us with an imaginary gun…). Our set book was Kennedy’s “Shorter Latin Primer” (see above) which was, like Ridout’s book, a hand-me-down. The cover of mine had been altered to read “The Shortbread Eating Primer” and there were numerous small drawings of male and female genitalia throughout its pages, contributed by previous generations of temporary owners.

There were many illustrations and exercises in the book and, after Mr Allen had the class reciting declensions (“mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensas” etc.), we did translations of sentences like “the soldiers fought the sailors with arrows and spears, while wearing their best togas.” We were not introduced to classical literature, or the philosophy of the ancient world, something which I discovered at University. In the second year of secondary school we were maybe too young for that, but it does provide a valuable setting for learning the language. For us, Latin was significant as it was essential for Oxbridge entry at the time, and there was little that was more important than that.


Learning a language was new to me and the masters who attempted to get me fluent were Mr Haskins (formal and large), Mr Johnson (who was a lovely man), Mr Joslin (who was terrifying) and Mr Haskins again. I tried hard, and was able to master some translation work, but speaking the language was a challenge. Perhaps that is not surprising, as I rarely ventured outside Devonshire and didn’t make my first trip to continental Europe until I was 22-years old. Not atypical insularity for the early 1960s.


Mr Roper taught us art and I remember that we were introduced to charcoal and had to draw various objects. It wasn’t for me and it is a mystery how I developed such a strong interest in Art History – again, it was something that started once I had escaped to University. If Mr Roper had been told that I was to end up giving lunchtime talks, and lectures, at the National Gallery in London, he may well have fainted.

History and Geography

History was taught by Mr Kneebone and I can remember very little about it as I elected to drop the subject in favour of Geography (something we were allowed to do, as our choices were dictated by what we were to take at O-level). The masters who taught me were Mr Dutton (who seemed very old and used to spend a lot of time stroking his shiny bald head), Mr Gillham (who was young and very enthusiastic) and Mr Coon (who was a bit intimidating). While I found learning about other countries very interesting, it all seemed remote, as I led such a South-Devon-based life [1]. It was physical geography that I loved and learning about maps. I spent many hours at home working out profiles from contours on Ordnance Survey maps, drawing cross-sections of several places I knew. Again, it was the relation of school learning to the outside world that fired my interest.


Mr Titchener taught us mathematics in the first year and we then had Mr Horrell, Mr Roberts and Mr Cowler in other years. I had always enjoyed arithmetic at Oldway Primary School and now I learned about algebra, trigonometry and geometry, all fascinating in their own right, and ideal for quizzes. We had to solve equations and provide proofs in geometry (always ending QED). There was little attempt to show the application of mathematics, or to explain how much of the way we view the world is dependent on mathematics. That was something that I discovered for myself later and, no doubt, that was not part of the O-level syllabus. Everything must be governed by a syllabus.

Physics and Chemistry

Physics was taught by Mr Thorpe (a genuinely nice man) and Mr Evans (who was less friendly, but who drove an MG Midget sports car, so claimed bonus points). I learned about electricity and magnetism, moments of inertia, Boyle’s law, Fleming’s left-hand rule, and all sorts of other things that a physicist should know. It was all learned but my problem was that I didn’t understand what it was all about.

It was the same in Chemistry. Mr Roberts taught us in the first year and our first task was to learn the mantra “Acid + Base = Salt + Water”. There followed lots more rote learning, some interesting experiments with magnesium ribbon, and we progressed, under the teaching of Mr Crabtreee, to learn more about organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. I took A-level Chemistry and I suffered. Mr Crabtree was one of only two masters at the school who bullied me and I remember one typical session of teaching when he hit me on the head (gently) saying “Valency, Wotton, Valency! It’s all in the text book (the latter word pronounced to rhyme with puke).” I just didn’t understand the dimensions of chemistry and what was happening to molecules, atoms, electrons and all the rest of it. I learned it, of course, but didn’t “get it”. I still don’t.


Biology was the subject that I really enjoyed and we were taught by Mr Clark (who was a lovely man) and by Mr Hood. I have given a full description elsewhere [1] of how we shared teaching in Biology with South Devon Technical College, with Mr Hood taking the Botany class and Mr Cosway (of the Tech.) taking Zoology. This was a very different world to that of TBGS and I enjoyed the freedom and the chance to play truant and collect from the shore and make observations on the animals and plants found there.


Taught throughout by Mr John Burman Hopwood, who was a real enthusiast, music classes were not for examinations but for various performances. We were tested for membership of the school choir by each having to sing “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maiden singing in the valley below….” When it came to my turn ("W" being late in the alphabet), I was so nervous that I could only manage the first line before bursting into tears (the only boy to do so). Still, I showed enough promise in that brief showing to get into the choir and I really enjoyed being part of that; going to local festivals and taking part in concerts in the school hall. It was impossible not to like Mr Hopwood and he had the distinction of being the only master who gave me a whacking with a gym shoe, after a bunch of us were caught in a classroom instead of being in the playground.

PE and Games

We had a number of masters for these physical activities and I remarked on Games in my earlier post [2]. PE involved exercises like vaulting, walking on a balance beam, and climbing ropes and wall bars. There were also pull-ups and press-ups and all sorts of other things to try the patience. The senior PE master was Mr Stokes and he invariably wore a black blazer with the CCPE logo on it (the Discobolus of Myron – a missed chance to talk about classical sculpture). He liked to walk with his chest puffed out and he was not especially likeable, although he was much more human when teaching RE. He was kind enough to compliment me on a presentation that I gave on the Mennonites.

The worst PE master from my point of view was Mr Morrall, who enjoyed his role and liked to do a bit of humiliating. In one PE lesson we played a game where a pair of us had to chase around the gym (in the Tech. College) and tag as many of the others in the class as we could. For his amusement, Mr Morrall paired me with Neil Collings (who sadly died in 2010). Neil was known to us all as “The Bishop”, as he was a devout churchman and went on to have a distinguished career in the Church of England. Neil was not an athlete, but we did manage to catch a few of our fellow students. It was clearly all very entertaining to Mr Morrall.


All this happened many years ago and the school I knew is no longer there (an image of the old school main building is shown above). So, do I look back on my school years as being the best of my life? Decidedly not. While there were some inspirational masters, a lot of the subject material was dull and we would have been better served if there was no syllabus and no examinations. That’s never going to happen though, and I am so grateful that I had the natural world all around me to provide a source of meaning to it all. I believe in the Liberal Arts and Sciences approach and hope that secondary education heads in that direction one day – maybe at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School?

[1] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse. e-book (available widely!).